Scottish vote weighs pride against risk

A woman waves a Scottish Saltire at a 'Yes' campaign rally in Glasgow, Scotland September 17, 2014. The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on September 18, when Scotland will vote whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Dylan Martinez | Reuters
A woman waves a Scottish Saltire at a 'Yes' campaign rally in Glasgow, Scotland September 17, 2014. The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on September 18, when Scotland will vote whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The people of Scotland decide Thursday whether national pride outweighs economic risk.

The vote on independence is taking place without any of the usual factors that drive the dissolution of great nations: no war, no acute economic crisis, no raging territorial dispute. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite: peace, a slowly recovering economy and a central government in London that promises to grant more powers over taxing and spending to the Scottish Parliament.

The Scots cannot claim they have not been warned about the uncertain and even dire economic consequences of splitting from the United Kingdom, on issues like the currency, investment, pensions and declining energy revenues from the North Sea.

Economists normally as ideologically disparate and disputatious as Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Adam S. Posen and Niall Ferguson all have predicted a negative economic outlook for an independent Scotland, while expressing anxiety, too, about the impact of such uncertainty on the larger European and global economies.

Those warnings, echoed by many British leaders and business executives, and traditional feelings of connection and kinship on this island, may narrowly win the day.

Read MoreScottish independence doesn't have to be a disaster

But half of Scots, give or take a few percentage points, are expected to vote for independence anyway. Some do not believe the negative forecasts, calling them "fear-mongering." Some say they resent the sense that an outside elite is patronizing them or doubting their capacity. And many will vote yes for other reasons — to feel responsible for their own fate and to build, or rebuild, what they hope will be a fairer, less unequal country of their own, for better or worse.

Alyn Smith, a pro-independence Scottish member of the European Parliament and a former corporate lawyer, said that the British government did what was best for the United Kingdom, not necessarily for Scotland. "The U.K. does not incentivize how to grow the Scottish economy, but the U.K. economy," he said.

Those opposed to independence, called the "Better Together" campaign, have focused so much on the potentially negative effects of independence that many Scots seem to have simply stopped listening, or decided that they prefer the reassurances of Alex Salmond, the leader of the independence movement. Mr. Salmond maintains that Scotland can stand on its own, that the British government is "bluffing"when it says it has ruled out a currency union, and that the European Union is exaggerating the difficulties Scotland would face in joining the bloc as a new member.

"The no campaign has been prophesying that the sky will fall for so long that it's just all noise and not credible anymore," Mr. Smith said.

There is resentment, too, among independence supporters at what is seen as dismissive attitudes of British elites. They point to an appearance in Scotland in February by the chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, when he declared that it would be impossible for Britain to have a currency union with an independent Scotland — but took no questions on the topic, one of the most important of the campaign.

Read MoreIf Scotland says Aye, what happens next?

"People were offended that this politician from southern England, with no real standing in Scotland, should talk to us in those terms," Mr. Smith said.

Iain Macwhirter, a columnist for The Sunday Herald newspaper, called Mr. Osborne's visit a turning point in the campaign. Why is "Project Fear" not working? he asked. "Why have so many Scots refused to heed the warnings of press, politicians and banks?" His answer: "Well, in a nutshell, George Osborne happened."

Those who favor independence argue that Scotland is politically and culturally alienated from a government in London dominated by the Conservatives and the power of money. Many in left-leaning Scotland say a yes vote would bring them not only autonomy but also a more Scandinavian-style social democracy — nuclear free and more equitable.

Some in the yes campaign seem to be making quasi-economic arguments of their own,selling Scotland as a socialist paradise of enhanced benefits fueled by endless amounts of North Sea oil and gas.

Yet the warnings of British and international economists are not easily dismissed. They tend to center on questions of the currency, budget deficits, energy resource sand relatively lower growth in Scotland, as well as reduced clout in global affairs for a shrunken Britain.

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Tight polls have many in Washington freshly alarmed, with the White House and many American heavyweights voicing strong support for keeping the United Kingdom together.

The no camp warns that Scotland would lose not just the British pound but a sizable chunk of its financial sector as banks and insurers flee south, taking jobs and capital with them. With the future of oil revenues uncertain and declining, an independent Scotland could not afford its current welfare state, let alone expand it, the argument goes.

Mr.Greenspan, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, told The Financial Times this week that the economic consequences of independence would be "surprisingly negative for Scotland, more so than the Nationalist Party is in any way communicating."

He said that pro-nationalist assurances that Britain would continue to serve as Scotland's central bank after a divorce were most likely wrong, and that attempts by a newly independent Scotland to use the British pound would "break apart very quickly."

Others see both the risks and benefits of independence as overstated. The new nation would be well-off to start with, but on course to grow poorer: Scotland has a G.D.P. per capita above most regions of Britain, lagging behind only London and the southeast of England. But Scottish productivity is 11 percent lower than in the rest of Britain, and its population is unhealthier and aging more rapidly. Mr. Salmond's plan to increase public spending by 3 percent a year means that even if the Scottish government spends all of its oil revenues, the hole in its finances will grow without higher taxes or higher-than-anticipated economic growth.

Read MoreThe price of Scottish independence

If the pro-independence side wins, economists predict, Scotland would face the uncertainty that would hang over 18 months of divorce negotiations, which will tackle thorny issues like the division of oil revenues, the national debt and the currency.

The currency has been the biggest flash point in recent months. Even left-leaning economists warn that a currency union that lacks a fiscal union and a true "lender of last resort" would make Scotland vulnerable to the same risks that nearly undid the euro zone. Excluding oil, Scotland ran a public sector deficit of nearly 11 percent of its national income in 2012-13 — a bigger gap than in Greece or Ireland.

"In psychological terms, independence represents a form of magical thinking," said Colin McLean, a Scottish fund manager. "Without understanding the precise mechanism, this single change represents a cure-all for widely conflicting aspirations ranging from growth to redistribution."

Not all business leaders are against independence. Ken Beaty, a former investment strategist and a Scot, lives in England so cannot vote, but said he saw the struggle for Scots as hope versus fear. "But some things are worth taking risks for," he said.

Stephen Gethins, a former adviser to Mr. Salmond, said that economists were focused too much on the challenges of independence instead of on the opportunities presented by the Scottish resources of oil, gas and renewable energy through wind and waves; of whisky, food and tourism; of a thriving energy-services sector; and of a people that have traditionally exported their best minds to London and the world.

Read MoreMarkets await Scottish vote—'be very much concerned'

Mr. Gethins pointed to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who has dismissed most of the warnings, arguing in The Scotsman that "independence may have its costs — although these have yet to be demonstrated convincingly; but it will also have its benefits," which Scotland can recapture through the taxes it would not have to share with London.

The referendum allows those 16 and over to vote, and while younger voters are divided in their opinions, they also appear more likely to be optimistic and less likely to be swayed by economic arguments. Kate Macauley, 19, flew home to Glasgow from a summer job in Massachusetts to vote.

"There's nothing sure, but I want to make our own way, to improve things we want to improve," she said. And if the noes win? "I'd be devastated," she said. "I'd just hope that somehow we'd have another chance."